Did COVID-19 Actually Happen?

In March 2020, the entire world was rocked by a pandemic that changed the way we live, work, socialise… even now, as things steadily return to something resembling normal, we all know that nothing will ever quite be the same again.

But… did it actually happen? Did we really spend all those weeks and months staying home, working remotely and only going shopping for essentials while wearing masks and large slatherings of hand gel?

Relax. I’m not a conspiracy theorist (or am I…?) and I’m not denying the pandemic ever happened – at least, not in this world. But what about the worlds we write about?

It’s hard to imagine, say, James Bond being ordered to work from home while MI5 goes into lockdown – or what about the wizarding world of Harry Potter? Most science fiction universes can ignore it – Star Trek already has several contradictory explanations of what happened in the early 21st century, and Doctor Who can happily jump backwards or forwards in time to avoid the whole period.

Contemporary authors have a choice. Do they write the pandemic into their fictional worlds, or do they quietly ignore it and pretend that it never happened for their characters?

It’s a dilemma.

Writing about it feels more honest, and if you want your fiction to match reality you kind of need to do it. But many of our fictional tropes will have been derailed by this. A zombie apocalypse would never get started if we naturally avoid getting close to strangers, particularly those who look sick. Events at the office aren’t as likely if half the workforce are working from home. A chance encounter at the bar? Even just going somewhere new without any reason beyond exploring?

Horror stories had a similar problem when mobile phones became commonplace, and it got even worse when smart phones became normal. It’s hard to get your characters lost in the middle of nowhere when they can literally call for help at any point and be instantly located by the emergency services. Now there’s a whole new scene in every horror story set after the 1980s in which the characters must either lose their phones or explain why they don’t have them.

So maybe we could just forget it ever happened. Let the people of your alternate Earth carry on like the pandemic never happened. If you’re already halfway through a series arc, this is probably your best bet. If your story involves an entirely different viral outbreak, it’s your only option (though you may find reality might help you write what happened next; who knew there’d be protests from people refusing to wear masks in public?). But then your stories risk becoming less relatable.

Maybe, eventually, we’ll just stop writing about anything that happened after the 1980s. No phones, no pandemics, no global terrorism, no internet… and now I know how Ready Player One must have been inspired, and Stranger Things.

Pandemic? What pandemic?

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